WILLIAMS, Calif. (AP) — Former California Governor Jerry Brown lives off the grid in retirement, but he’s still deeply connected on two issues that captivated him during his tenure and are now center stage on the world stage: climate change and the nuclear threat. war.
Brown, 83, who left office in 2019, is executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which sets the doomsday clock measuring how close humanity is to self-destruction. He is also a board member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Brown praised President Joe Biden for not raising America’s nuclear threat level after Russian President Vladimir Putin made veiled threats to use his country’s nuclear arsenal. in the midst of its war in Ukraine. Brown also urged Biden to resist Republican calls to increase oil production as gasoline prices soar.
“It’s true that the Russians are making money from oil and gas, but compounding that problem by ramping up oil and gas in America would defeat climate goals, and climate is like war: if we don’t manage it, people are going to die and they are going to suffer. Not immediately, but over time,” said Brown, a Democrat.
Brown spoke to the AP last week from his home in rural Colusa County, about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento. The lands of California’s interior coastal mountain range have belonged to Brown’s family since the 1860s, when his great-grandfather emigrated from Germany and built a stagecoach stop known as the Mountain House.
The Brown House and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, completed construction in 2019 and is called Mountain House III. The house is powered entirely by solar panels and is not connected to any local utilities.
Although Brown retired from electoral politics after serving a record four terms as governor of California — from 1975 to 1983 and from 2011 to 2019 — he is barely absent from public life.
Brown hosted conversations with John Kerry, Biden’s presidential climate envoy; Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy; and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He created and chairs the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, which aims to stimulate collaboration on climate-related research and technology.
“No matter how adversarial things get, cooperation remains an imperative to address climate and nuclear proliferation,” he said.
At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he brings an important policy perspective as his scientists consider how to get their message across, said Rachel Bronson, the group’s president. Last week he joined the organization’s science and security council as they issued a statement on Putin’s nuclear threats.
Scientists decided not to update the Doomsday Clock, which in 2020 was moved forward 20 seconds to be set at 100 seconds before midnight, the metaphorical time representing a global catastrophe. They warned, however, that the invasion of Russia had given life to the “Nightmare Scenario” that nuclear weapons could be used to aggravate a “conventional conflict”.
Bronson pursued Brown for a leadership role at the end of his governorship because of the deep interest he had shown in his nuclear work and his ability to understand major threats.
“He thinks of the existential risk” Bronson said.
Indeed, Brown is a deep thinker on a number of issues, from hummingbirds to the very meaning of life and death. He trained as a Jesuit priest but eventually abandoned these ambitions to follow his father into politics. Edmund “Tap” Brown served as Governor of California from 1959 to 1967.
Jerry Brown brings a philosophical approach to life and work, often ready with a Latin phrase or motto to sum up his views. He has long lamented that the buildup of nuclear weapons and climate change don’t get enough attention in the face of more immediate concerns – these days, the coronavirus and inflation.
“We need to have enough bandwidth to look at the big problems, because if they get away from us, we won’t have to worry about the little problems.” said Brown.
He warned that a Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives after midterm elections this fall, coupled with the possibility of the Supreme Court limiting the federal government’s power to regulate gas emissions greenhouse, would create a climate “catastrophe all the more likely.”
Although Brown has long contemplated the fate of the planet, he may be more connected to it than ever. It draws its energy from the sun and water from a well. Fueled by climate change, California wildfires have become hotter, more unpredictable and more destructive in recent years and the location of Brown’s 2,500-acre (1,012-hectare) ranch means it lives closer than ever to the threat.
He’s not all green — he’s riding around his property on a gas-powered ATV. He studies trees and flowers, determined to know their names, and in the fall he welcomes friends to help him harvest the olives, which he has pressed in oil.
He offered his property as meeting space for the California Native Plant Society, entomologists, and forestry and fire experts. Last fall, forestry experts drafted a statement calling on the state to focus on better forest management to reduce the severity of wildfires. Many of their suggestions mirrored those pursued by Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration.
The entomologists, meanwhile, spent two days at the ranch for a planning retreat on how to protect California’s insects. Brown allowed them to survey his land, and two researchers found new species — an ant and a beetle, said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Institute for Biodiversity and organizer of the retreat.
Brown joined the scientists for meals to grill them on their research.
He “clearly excited to sit around the picnic table for dinner and have some super hardcore conversations with the smartest entomologists on the planet,” said Gluesenkamp.
Sitting outside his home, Brown said he had recently wondered what might have happened if he had won one of his three presidential campaigns, the last in 1992. He decided that he would much rather be in Colusa County.
“I’m very happy where I am – it’s a really amazing place. I can’t imagine being in a better place,” he said.
He then wondered aloud if he could have avoided the same mistakes as those who became president.
Then he quickly began to wonder why a hummingbird that had caught his eye was moving so quickly from tree to tree.